Understanding TZUCO

Tzuco stands as Chicago’s hottest opening of the year. Sure, Galit has gotten plenty of positive press, Cabra’s Peruvian fare is fantastic, and Gaijin promises to shift the paradigm for Japanese food in the city. Other establishments like the St. Clair Supper Club, CLAUDIA, Wherewithall, and Ciccio Mio merit honorable mentions. But can anyone really compete with Carlos Gaytan? Termed a “game-changer” by Food and Wine, Chef Gaytan opened Mexique in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood in 2008. There, his blending of Mexican heritage with French technique earned the restaurant one Michelin star in 2013 and 2014. That made him the first Mexican-born chef to ever earn a Michelin star before Mexique’s closure in 2018.

The circumstances of Mexique’s closure aren’t quite clear. Though the chef’s ex-wife owned the restaurant’s space following the couple’s divorce, Gaytan insisted he simply wanted to try something new. After a decade running the same concept in a relatively quiet part of the city, Tzuco–as it stands today–certainly represents a “step up” in location and artistry. So, in May of 2018, Mexique closed and its chef decamped for Mexico. There, Gaytan focused on HA’ (“water” in Mayan), a restaurant he opened in the Hotel Xcaret Mexico outside of Playa del Carmen during December of the previous year. While more focused on using local seafood, Ha undeniably draws on Gaytan’s refined, French-inspired style. The restaurant offers a tasting menu along with à la carte options in an imaginative, naturalistic space that displays far more personality than the drab brick and wood in West Town. In short, HA’ offered Gaytan the chance to flex his creative muscles before blessing Chicago once more with his cuisine.

Exactly a year after Mexique’s closure, Tzuco was announced in May of 2019. Named for Gaytan’s hometown of Huitzuco in the State of Guerrero, the restaurant–though it would retain the chef’s French flair–would be “a totally Mexican project in the United States.” This meant not just ingredients or wine, but design elements like furniture and the staff itself–which would include young cooks from Mexico. It would also be only the first of three total concepts the chef would be bringing to Chicago this year. Located in a relatively quiet corridor in the northeast corner of Chicago’s River North neighborhood, Tzuco opened just four months after its announcement. One month after that, Gaytan opened Panango!, an “on-the-go” Mexican panadería slinging soups, salads, sandwiches, and pastries adjacent to Tzuco. Tales of Carlos Gaytan, a 12-seat tasting menu restaurant located within Tzuco, is the last piece of the puzzle slated to open in December.

What a statement of intent, right? To close Mexique so suddenly but return right on time a year later with not one, not two, but three new Mexican concepts crafted by the country’s first Michelin-starred chef. You normally would not bother with such extended background on a new restaurant, but, having never visited Mexique, it was important to understand Gaytan’s reputation and the nature of his “return.” Likewise, though many of Chicago’s lauded openings this year come from Michelin (or even James Beard Foundation) awarded chefs, they are spin-offs or more casual concepts. Instead, Gaytan is going all-in on a new neighborhood, going toe-to-toe with Rick Bayless and Diana Davila, and expressing himself across casual, refine comfort food, and fine dining realms all under one roof. Tzuco (and its associated concepts) is the sort of development one would only expect from the city’s biggest chefs, and, after three visits to the restaurant, you think Chef Carlos might have a shot at that title.

To start, Tzuco’s design is gorgeous. Billed as “a unique and poetic space,” the restaurant’s monochromatic shades of earth brown might seem drab at first, but what Tzuco lacks in color it makes up for with the intricacy of its shelving and the objects displayed therein. You lack the proper vocabulary to describe just what is being displayed, but you think “dried Mexican flora” or “Mexican countryside” might capture it well enough. (It is certainly far more rustic than the carnival environment of the Frontera restaurants). These shelves–which also line the restaurant’s windows–can be seen through easily enough, forming soft barriers between the entryway, the bar, and certain sections of the dining room. Earthenware discs (again, you lack the knowledge to identify them any better) also hang at certain spots on the wall, with eight of them lining the wall above the nine high-top chairs facing into Tzuco’s kitchen. These chairs, like the chairs and tables in the dining room proper, are made of a sturdy, polished dark wood. You cannot speak for the counter seats, but you have found the furniture–which also includes some sleek benches–to be both comfortable and perfectly fitted to the aesthetic. The bathroom also happens to feature a massive communal sink made of stone, which you understand to have been commissioned by a Mexican artist.

Looks aside, you must say you were rather disappointed with Tzuco’s food on your first visit. It was a late reservation (9 PM) on a Monday evening just a couple weeks after the restaurant’s opening. You are not sure if Chef Gaytan was still leading the line–or in the building at all–but should it matter? Both ceviches–the tatemado, made with tuna and charred tomatillos, and the verde, made with Hamachi and three preparations of cactus–fell completely flat. You can forgive the size of the slivers of fish (for they were tender), but both “leches de tigre” were a muddled mess of flavors lacking any of the vibrancy one expects. Neither came anywhere close to touching the ceviches served in the Bayless restaurants, a rather large black eye for a native-born Mexican chef. If these marinades haven’t been absolutely mastered, you thought at the time, why even open the restaurant?

The oven-roasted octopus–served with carrots, peas, potatoes, and dill–fared much better. With a mouthfeel that is both rich and exceptionally tender, the dish is rightfully one of Gaytan’s signatures. While the guacamole featuring “fresh creamy Michoacán avocados” and grasshoppers was forgettable, you will admit that you generally find avocados to be bland ingredients that demand quite a bit of dressing to be palatable. Another dish of shrimp and habanero pepper in watermelon aguachile was fairly good (not great) and again left you wondering why the portions of seafood are so small and well-hidden at the restaurant.

The “chicharrón de pescado” (a fried snapper for two) served during that first meal was certainly of a more sizable portion. The plate arrives at the table with the tail of the fish twisted skywards for an additional flourish, but that same tail tends to get in the way when the dish is being split by a larger party. The fish itself is filleted into chunks and served with a salad of pickled vegetables and a mild salsa veracruzana. Though the fish itself was moist, the skin lacked any crispness and seemed to defeat the point of frying it altogether. The salsa, as well, was a bit too mild, the flavors of the entire dish a bit too muted–save for the pickled vegetables which actually did the most to brighten proceedings. Though many customers will undoubtedly order this snapper, it comes nowhere close to the fried snapper offered at Cabra (nor does it best Leña Brava’s excellent grilled striped bass).

Background: Tzuco’s duck confit waffle (from the brunch menu). Foreground: Tzuco’s chile relleno (available at both brunch and dinner).

You finished that first meal with Tzuco’s 20 oz. bone-in, dry-aged “carne asada” ribeye. Like the fish, it was well cooked (though perhaps also in need of a healthier char). Oven-roasted tomatoes and three or four fingerling potatoes formed the accompaniments, along with a goat cheese fondue to pour over the meat. The fondue’s texture was on the money. Its flavor was generally pleasing as well. Yet you cannot help but think that putting richness on top of richness is a bit too much. The dish would likely benefit from something along the lines of Leña Brava’s “smoky steak salsa” (served with their 32 oz. tomahawk) or Pacific Standard Time’s “miso bagna cauda” (served with their ribeye) which both cut the richness of the meat and accentuate the beef’s flavor rather than merely use it as a canvas for cheese.

It took you nearly a month and a half to return to Tzuco, intrigued by Phil Vettel’s prediction that the restaurant would likely earn a Michelin star next year. This admission did not jive with your own experience, and you began to make excuses for what was a rather forgettable first meal. “It could have been a off night,” you thought to yourself. “It was a late reservation on a Monday night,” you figured (as if a restaurant worthy of a Michelin star could ever “switch off” in such a way). The execution of the ceviches continued to bother you–could they really be that underwhelming? There had to be some error in the preparation of their marinades. Perhaps you were served the very last of that day’s batch? In the end, you relented and booked two reservations for the same week–a Tuesday and a Thursday–both around 6 PM.

The Tuesday visit featured some familiar dishes from your first visit along with a selection of other dishes that you did not get to try. Over a month later, the ceviches were more or less the same compositionally. Their respective marinades seemed better balanced, but diners must accept that they do not aim for the tart and refreshing citric notes one expects. Rather, they indulge in smokier, spicier flavors that deserve at least some credit for their creativity. Nonetheless, citrus would appear by way of the home-cured lemon zest topping a flatbread of avocado, ricotta cheese, and salsa macha. This dish, which you hadn’t tried prior, impressed the table with its size. However, much like the guacamole, the avocados–even with the flatbread’s accompanying ingredients–come across as tasteless mush. The texture of the flatbread itself was also suspect: the end pieces possessed a pleasantly crisp crust while those in the middle were doughy and did even less to contrast the avocados’ mouthfeel.

The octopus that evening impressed your guests, and a dish of Prince Edward Island mussels was quite pleasing too. The bivalves arrived in a pool of saffron beurre blanc studded with dried chorizo and pickled jalapeños. The accompanying round of bread was beautifully charred on the grill and a thoughtful way to soak up the remaining sauce in true French fashion. Your only critique is that the mussels’ serving vessel is a bit too shallow and only works to obscure how few mussels one receives relative to the heaping bowls brought out at typical bistros.

Tzuco’s chicken liver waffle (only available at brunch) ranks as one of the very best breakfast items you have sampled (several times) in 2019.

A new dish of corn esquites–made from Tequesquite sweet corn, chile de árbol, mayonnaise, and Huitzuco cheese–also suffered from a half baked presentation. The aforementioned ingredients arrive in a sealed mason jar with instructions for the guest to shake them vigorously together and then pour it all into an awaiting bowl. One of your guests dove headlong into the task, only to find the jar was improperly sealed. Even after trying to screw the cap on more tightly, it released an off-putting mayo ooze that coated her hands. Thankfully, one of the bussers quickly intervened to fix the jar and offer a towel. However, by the time the esquites entered the bowl, they were lukewarm. Their flavor was otherwise pleasant, and it should not be difficult to avoid such problems in the future.

When it came to entrees, you first gave the fried snapper another chance. The table enjoyed it–particularly with the fresh tortillas, which you neglected to mention–but fish’s crispness still left much to be desired. Perhaps that’s ultimately not the chef’s desired texture, but it is hard to see the word “chicharrón” and not expect a pleasing crunch. While the fish was a familiar presence on the table, you decided to ditch the carne asada during this second visit in favor of a few of the other meat dishes. You ordered one each of the “barbacoa de cordero” (lamb), “pork pibil,” and “costillas de res” (beef short ribs) but, through some sort of miscommunication, received two plates of the lamb and one of the pork. Given the breadth of the order you placed with the server all at once, you cannot really fault the restaurant for a minor error in transcription. Besides, you were quite pleased with what did arrive.

The lamb barbacoa is actually a large bone-in cut from the neck that is steamed in Maguey leaves (taken from the agave plant) and served atop a garbanzo bean purée with a fermented milk called jocoque. The hunk of meat arrives at the table standing upright, and one only needs to apply the slightest press of the fork for the slender, central bone to slide out. Then, the flesh just about falls apart into succulent chunks that retain just the slightest of chews. The lamb’s flavor is deep but devoid of any gameyness. The garbanzo purée does a perfect job of absorbing all the juices and thickening the feel of the dish while the jocoque, meanwhile, provides a pleasant tang that reminds one of traditional Mediterranean lamb preparations.  

The pork pibil is another dish Gaytan should be proud of. The shank is prepared Guerrero style–that is, the chef’s mother’s version of a regional recipe typically braised with onions, garlic, allspice, and various chiles. Instead of the traditional sour orange component, the chef, like his mother, makes use of a pineapple vinegar. Similar to the lamb, the pork shank arrives with a pair of bones that lift away from the juicy meat with the most minor of tugs. Here, a ramekin of avocado-infused black beans plays the role of the garbanzo bean purée (that is, to stick to your ribs a bit and soak up any drippings). In the same manner, a garnish of habanero-pickled red onion cuts the meats richness much like the jocoque did. Unlike the restaurant’s fish and the ribeye preparations, you think this pibil clearly bests Leña Brava’s pork shank carnitas (and at a fraction of the price too). The pibil, like the barbacoa, is a benchmark dish where Gaytan truly struts his stuff and upon which Tzuco can build a reputation worthy of all the media hype.

Your third visit to the restaurant–just two days later–chiefly served to underline your prior observations. Nonetheless, there were a couple new things in store. To start, you tried one of Tzuco’s cocktails for the first time: a “Papantla” made of Casa Dragones tequila (“fat washed” in-house using butter) mixed with Topo Chico (sparkling water), egg white, lemon, crème de violette, and beet. Perfectly balanced in its interplay between sweetness and richness, the Papantla might stand as one of your best restaurant cocktails of 2019. You made sure to order a second one (that, for the record, went down even more easily) despite the “Rum Smash” and house margarita also catching your eye. The “fat wash” technique on the tequila is a winner, working to cut any of the heat from the alcohol and adding a dynamism to the bar that goes beyond just “batching” cocktails for a busy night catering to those poor souls without reservations.

When it came to the food, your third trip took some familiar turns. Both ceviches, the avocado flatbread, the guacamole, and the fried red snapper displayed the same flaws outlined during the course of this piece. However, the mussels, roasted octopus, shrimp and watermelon salad, lamb barbacoa, and pork pibil made similarly strong showings that worked to charm the newcomers in your party. The carne asada made an appearance once more, and, though one of your guests chose to omit the goat cheese fondue, he found the dry-aged ribeye to be perfectly cooked and rated it as one of his favorite steaks in recent memory. The braised short ribs (costillas de res) also found their way to the table this time, offering perhaps the most explicitly French preparation of anything on Gaytan’s menu. The fall-apart tender beef arrives atop parsnip purée with fennel, baby kale, and supremed orange. While there is no question that this is a well-executed, rather refined dish, it lacks the imagination (and, ultimately, the arresting flavors) of Tzuco’s lamb and pork preparations. Still, it works to showcase the chef’s culinary chops and stands as a welcome addition to the menu for those feeling a bit flavor shy.

The pastries from Panango! (Tzuco’s neighboring bakery) are diverse in their flavors but uniformly impressive in texture. Here, they are offered à la carte at brunch.

While you certainly ordered dessert after each of your three dinners at Tzuco–in fact, you ordered all four items on the menu twice–you simply have not found much to write home about. The chocolate cake and vanilla ice cream “pingüino” or the hazelnut cake and salted caramel ice cream “gianduja” might be your natural favorites, but they are simply pleasing, serviceable dishes that do little to reinvent either French or Mexican pastry tradition. The “jericalla” (referring to a Guadalajaran custard dessert) takes the form of a brûlée foam served with sherry ice cream and raisins while the last dessert–titled “lima / guanabana / aguacate”–combines lime-infused tapioca, guanabana (soursop) sorbet, and avocado foam. Compared to the first two desserts, these are more consciously inspired by Mexican flavors. Nonetheless, lacking any nostalgia as a reference point, they also remain in the “good, not great” category. To clarify, you would not dissuade any customer from ordering these desserts; they simply do not rise to the same heights as the restaurant’s best savory dishes.

Thinking you were done? To cap things off, you made a visit to Tzuco during the opening weekend of their brunch service. Rather skeptical that the menu might simply rehash what the restaurant offers at dinner, you were impressed at the breadth of new dishes and cocktails on offer. To drink, a chilaquiles bloody mary boasts homemade tortilla liquor as a base that is then combined with a “bloody mix” and lime juice. Upon its arrival, you found the pale yellow color of the drink to be a bit arresting, but it rightfully signifies that there is next to no tomato flavor in this bloody mary. Nonetheless, the tortilla liquor is crisp and clean, making for a cocktail that is only mildly spiced and pleasantly refreshing. A pico de gallo martini–made with serrano pepper and cilantro infused tequila combined with cherry tomato and onion mix–was far more difficult for you to drink. Despite the tequila base, it reminded you of an actual martini (and might please those who favor the actual cocktail). All that being said, the brunch cocktails are unabashedly creative, and the menu contains plenty of “safe” options like a cava mimosa, a michelada, and a grapefruit-lemongrass paloma.

Tzuco’s brunch menu does draw on a few items you tried at dinner–namely the avocado flatbread, hamachi ceviche, mussels, and pork pibil­­–along with others you hadn’t sampled across the three visits like a steak tartare, an arugula salad, and a chile relleno. You wouldn’t necessarily say these are all dishes worth transferring to daytime, but their presence offers those unable to make it to dinner a slice of Gaytan’s more savory options. Plus, there’s not much you can complain about upon tasting the dedicated brunch offerings.

For one, an “Acapulco style” shrimp cocktail fulfills everything the two ceviches have lacked. The dish pairs the same shrimp from the shrimp and watermelon salad (here, served whole instead of diced) with pico de gallo and places it all under a crispy baked tortilla crust. Customers are instructed to crack the tortilla with their spoons then pour a small pitcher of cocktail over the top. While cracking the crust is a good bit of fun, the flavors and textures offered are resplendent. The shrimp are plump and better appreciated whole, and their texture grows even more delightful should you choose to add the lovely chew of octopus into the mix for a small supplement. The cocktail sauce–which is a bit more watery in texture than the classic kind–absolutely bursts with smoky, spicy, citric, and deep-roasted tomato flavor. You wanted to substitute the cocktail sauce for the “bloody mary mix” in your cocktail–that’s how good it was. The dish displayed a mastery of seafood that had sadly been lacking outside of the roasted octopus dish, and it really speaks to a potential for the ceviches themselves to improve in due course.

Two types of waffles also proved particularly impressive. The first, featuring a duck leg confit, brussels sprouts, sweet potato purée, and a jamaica glaze, arrived at the table with a smoking sprig of lavender. The second preparation lacked those fireworks but featured fried chicken livers, pickled yellow beets, and poached eggs in a spicy balsamic glaze instead. Simply put, both waffle dishes were exceptional. While the duck leg impressed with its crispy outer skin and succulent inner flesh, the chicken livers were truly phenomenal. They boasted a crispness that one dreams of having on the red snapper with a homogenous, moist inner texture that only a master of offal can execute. The waffles themselves were nicely made and not too sweet, allowing the sweet potato and balsamic in each respective dish to drive the flavor towards somewhere in between savory and sweet.

The brunch menu also offers two kinds of crepes, a “croque Tzuco,” chilaquiles, (and a “torta de chilaquiles” to boot). There’s even a fish tacos dish made from the same red snapper as the chicharrón at dinner. At brunch, the fish is filleted and pan-seared, and one wonders if the texture is any better than the version that is, ostensibly, “fried.” Those craving sugar may find their options are a bit more limited. A “Pan de Muerto” French toast forms the lone composed sweet plate–yet, from the glance you stole at it, the dish looks like a winner by way of orange blossom foam, whipped cream, and Mexican chocolate. The other option, titled “Mexican sweet bread service,” comes by way of the Panango! bakery next door. Customers can choose from a tray of various conchas and croissants for five dollars a piece. You indulged in this after the waffles and was not left disappointed, as the pastries possessed an ethereal texture and slight chew that demonstrated far more finesse than the desserts offered on Tzuco’s dinner menu.

So, after four visits to Tzuco in the two months following its opening, just how do you rate the food? First, it is worth saying that the restaurant is rather consistent in its execution. While this means that certain items like the ceviches and the avocado flatbread never really improved, it speaks to the kitchen’s skill in executing Chef Gaytan’s vision. Likewise, this characteristic ensured that favored items like the lamb, pork, and steak maintained their quality across several visits. Not only that, but the pacing of each of the three dinners remained remarkably consistent despite each featuring plenty of food across three different days and reservation times.

Both these factors are the building blocks of a truly great restaurant and reflect very well on how Gaytan manages his kitchen. Truth be told, the dishes you were less enthused by were not horribly flawed, but just in need of tweaking. It is far better to have a crack team in place (and merely need to tweak one’s recipes) than to have developed the perfect flavors and fail to get the food out in a timely, consistent manner. The former can easily be built upon, and, if brunch is anything to go by, Gaytan is overflowing with ideas and will surely settle on the very best of them as time goes on.

Bridging the gap during this process of culinary experimentation and refinement is, as always, the front of house staff. There is no question that you would have hesitated to ever return to the restaurant had your experiences with the hostess, server, bussers, and manager been anything less than positive. For what is the difference between a restaurant on the path towards glory and one content making money with mediocrity? Attitude. That is, a positive energy sensed from the staff that can only emanate from the very top of the organization (where it takes the form of the chef’s creative energy and, thus, the continual process of improvement).

Tzuco employs a team of front-of-house all-stars from across the city. You recognize some of them from various restaurants around town. Some, they revealed when speaking with you, worked at Mexique and were eagerly awaiting the chef’s return. Others merely knew of Gaytan’s reputation, the scope of his project, and excitedly climbed aboard. No matter what brought the team together, they are sharp. Not only do the servers embrace the hard work of convincing customers on some of the menu’s more adventurous items like cactus and grasshopper. They are kind, expressive souls who never rush diners, and they form a perfect partnership with the bussers. Tzuco’s bussers do more than refill water and clear food. They are the proper “eyes and ears” of the restaurant and operate with enough room to quietly observe parties and bring them more tortillas or make room on the table at just the right moment. Few restaurants can anticipate their customers’ needs in such away, and the staff here does so effortlessly. Is it training? Hiring? Paying enough people to be on the floor? It is hard to say, but the hospitality is almost unerring.

In the final analysis, the food at Tzuco is engaging. The restaurant’s style, seen both on the plate and around the room, transcends Chicago’s more traditional Mexican fare. However, what’s most impressive is the culture Chef Carlos has created. That is what will make the three varied concepts under his roof a success, even as they cater to completely different customers. At this moment, the restaurant stands as an impressive showcase of Gaytan’s talent. There is certainly room to grow–and, if the menu sees dishes cycle in and out dynamically, it won’t be long until the bill of fare is filled with “winners.” But, nonetheless, Gaytan has earned his hero’s welcome back to Chicago, and you eagerly await his first true foray into fine dining later this year.

Two Pineapples: exceptional hospitality with a pervading sense of soul, food that speaks of “someone” or “somewhere,” yet the restaurant still operates within the realm of expectation.